Ben Popper, Louisville USGP Day 1, by flickr.com/amanda_bUSGP. This is big time. No more blowing up 40 minutes in, no more mechanicals or flats, no more hot weather dragging me down.

It’s all about fast and fun, nothing else. I belong with these guys… well, most of them… and it’s time to put more of them behind me. I love cyclocross!

Race time came really fast. I had taken a whole bunch of warm up laps and felt great. There were four sand pits, two of them were like pavement and the other two were pretty technical and had ruts that would eat you like a toddler eats goldfish crackers – messy, all over the place, and by the mouthful. The fabled “green meanie” flyover was a riot, and while many guys seemed to have problems getting back into the pedals on the top of it, I did pretty well with each lap. And then there were tons of sweet turns that with the soft ground could be railed like a roller coaster.

I got a call up into the third row and lined up behind a guy I didn’t know, trying to get an inside line. It was a pretty stacked field but I recognized many of the guys around me. I’m starting to feel like I have a place in this field and that there are guys I line up to really race against. I did the new routine of pre-race checks – big ring, yes! – as we were waiting for the gun.

The start straight was called the “holeshot of death” and that was because after the flat pavement straight it made a left hook and the course quickly narrowed. If I thought my start on Sunday in Cincinnati was good, this was great. I followed Trebons’ wheel into that first turn. I was off the pavement well in the top twenty surrounded by guys I am very unfamiliar racing with. It didn’t last long, but for that few hundred feet, it was pretty damn cool.

I really focused on riding a consistent race and it worked. With every pass of the pit Sam was calling out 26th to me and I rode in the same group for the first four or five laps. Then the group started to fall apart and I was riding to hold my position. Throughout, I was feeling really fresh and never really felt overworked.

With the lap cards coming down, I could see that a few riders in front of me were slowing and the pack started shuffling a little. I traded pulls with Will from the Richard Sachs team and it felt awesome to be riding with him. We were representing the two best American cross frame builders, in my opinion, just feet apart. With two to go, I turned it on as best I could. Not a whole lot changed in the standings, but it felt really good to push the pace again at the end of the race instead of slowing down.

I crossed the line well on the lead lap at 24th. There were 56 starters, and I’m happy to finish in the top half, in the money and without having blown up at 40 minutes. Again, there were a ton of people on the course cheering me on, which was fantastic. And it was really fun to race a course that was more than cut grass. Some of the sections felt like single track and the technical features broke up the lap well. I am excited to race again tomorrow, and hopefully pick off a few guys who may have gotten tired from today.

Thanks for reading.

CXM Columnist Ben Popper is on a mission to achieve one goal – earning just one UCI point. Follow Ben on this journey this season through his regular journal. You can find his other columns here.